Guy Lochhead ventures into the Lothians with Fergus the Forager and Reyka Vodka to gather meadowsweet, pine needles and seaweed for a wild twist on vodka cocktails.
“Edinburgh has it all,” explains our guide, Fergus the Forager. "From sea-sprayed hardy coastal plants to the lowland grassland of Holyrood Park via the shady nooks of the dark Georgian terraces of Newtown, you can make a cocktail just from ingredients sourced on Arthur’s Seat," he says, "but we were going to sample from further afield, too."
As we drive down Queen Street, he hands round bunches of urban weeds we can pick in the alleys we pass through, such as feverfew, a daisy-like flower with the power to knock out coffee withdrawal symptoms; yarrow, full of tannins to stem bleeding; pineapple weed, with aromatic buds of chamomile and apple; versatile burdock, used as coffee in Japan. We take bites out of the bouquets handed to us and I can feel a thrill of excited connectedness among my fellow urbanites – most of them bartenders, usually asleep this early in the morning. I look out of the window and the weeds shine like green jewels.
Our first stop is Longniddry Bents, a long grey beach peppered with tank traps. The tide is out. As we walk to the sea, Fergus points out all the resources available to us here. Sprawling seabuckthorn covers the roadside. The berries are dense with nutrients, the leaves full of protein. This was Pegasus’ favourite food, and is still used as feed for animals. We collect a few leaves and berries in our baskets and move on to admire some hogweed. The mature seeds make a great spice, commonly used in Iran. Fergus digs around in his rucksack and pulls out some syrups he's made from the stem and seeds - a burnt caramel and orange flavour, but somehow not either. Foraging offers flavours we don’t have names for.
Our passage to the sea takes us past willowherb (...subtle…), sea sandwort (cucumber-like succulents), mayweed (sea-scented and delicate), until we arrive at the seaweed. This is what we've come for. Fergus explains how overlooked our marine bounty is – although Britain’s coastline is the same length as Japan’s, we don’t have nearly as much of a culture around our seaweed. It can be deep-fried, pickled and dehydrated, and is full of nutrients, which it draws from the seawater. Unfortunately, this same mechanism means it’s very good at concentrating pollutants, so you should check the cleanliness of the beach you are taking from.
Beginning at the tidemark, we sample different species as we move towards the water. First, spiral wrack, like ghosts of grapes draped over the rocks at high tide. It breaks down in the sun, so use the moister under-layers. Knotted wrack looks like discarded green lawyers’ wigs. It has a 12 year lifespan and is the favourite food of limpets. Channelled wrack, folded into little grooves, with smart highlights at the ends of its fronds. These are all green seaweeds. Bladderwrack is a brown macro-algae with an amazing reproductive cycle involving “bladders” full of gametes.
Fergus gleefully produces a tupperware full of deep-fried sex organs for us to try. Some decline. He also has sugar kelp, which he’s prepared as sweet shards of natural stained glass, a beautiful deep green when held up to the light. Our final species to gather is rhisocloamine – a dense, felty sponge of lighter green. Powdered and melted into butter, it’s delicious with seafood. We wash our harvest in seawater and return to the coach.
As we head to our next site, Fergus tells me how he’d found preparing for this trip more challenging than normal. Away from his home of Canterbury, he didn’t know what plants to expect to find or what state they would be in. He describes how he' only recently learned to switch off from seeing nature as a pool of resources and just enjoy walking for walking’s sake, but it requires real effort. He talks about sustainability and how short-sighted it is to consider foraging middle-class. He says he got bored of foraging for restaurants because chefs only wanted wood sorrel and tended to just use wild foods as exotic garnishes. He's recently got into lacto-fermentation and historical recipes.
We arrive at Roslin Glen, a gnarled wooded gorge spilling down from a ruined castle and its historic chapel. Fergus leads us down the slope, skidding through the pines. We pause for a moment to admire these versatile trees. We can use their needles as a tea, in syrup, or to smoke things with; pollen from their catkins is apparently androgenic; and we can use their resin to produce retsina from bad white wine. There are Douglas Firs around us too, which have smaller, more aromatic needles. The blisters on their bark contains delicious sap. We eat supermarket sandwiches and pass around a pine pollen tincture before continuing down.
In the gorge, we're treated to herb bennett roots, beech leaf noyaux, medicinal meadowsweet, candelabras of sweet cicily, golden wild raspberries, birch sap, daisy petals, japanese rosehips, and white clover heads. The bartenders scatter among the undergrowth, harvesting cocktail ingredients for later. We gather again to smoke some mugwort – “sailor’s tobacco” - before climbing back up to the coach.
Our final stop is a yurt containing a full cocktail bar and a staggering range of syrups that Fergus has made - japanese knotweed, willow leaf, hawthorn blossom and green fig. The bartenders make elaborate drinks with these and their own found ingredients while Fergus prepares a meal for us all. He asks me to cut radishes to look like fly agarics for the salad and tells me about eating badger (90% tasty, 10% soil and worms). We drink some of the wild cocktails and heat a pan for the seaweed. He tells everyone to stand back before casting them into the oil, which erupts into a column of flames. Fished out and dried on kitchen paper, they taste like perfectly seasoned crispy cabbage, but with more depth of flavour. We try each species in turn, acknowledging their subtle differences.
While Fergus prepares sea bass and bhajis, I ask him if he has a garden at home. He’s started growing squashes, including some from 800 year-old seeds - gete-okosomin, which translates as “really cool old squash”. He has a greenhouse and the plants grow monstrously around a bench in one corner. Everyone agrees that the fish is delicious. Fergus seems pleased. He warms himself by the fire and tells me what swan tastes like.
Back in the centre of Edinburgh, I notice pineapple weed growing on some scrubland by the pavement. I pick a couple of buds and chew them on my way home, looking at my feet and the fertile cracks between the paving slabs. I'm in the city but now I can leave at any time.
Get your foraging basket out and give this zingy vodka cocktail a whirl this Christmas...
40 ml Reyka
20 ml willow leaf tea syrup
15 ml green fig syrup
20 ml lemon juice
7 ml Benedictine
Orange zest garnish